I first saw George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968, viewable here) on Halloween morning during my freshman year of college, but the gruesome image you see above had already been in my head for years, since it adorned the empty VHS case my family once possessed. This illustrates the staying power and the measured gore of Romero’s imagery: shot in grainy black and white, it’s not shocking enough to make you jump (at least, not most of the time). But it can creep into the back of your head like a zombie encroaching on your personal space, until next thing you know you’re waking up in a cold sweat from nightmares of those infected teeth clamping down on your naked shoulder. The lasting fear its visuals create is but one side of this scary, clever film.
The plot of Night of the Living Dead is as simple and as bold as its title: the dead rise to eat the living. News reports peppered throughout the film (giving the crisis an air of authenticity) suggest that the problem is regional and spreading; however, the movie’s own little microcosm is a house in rural Pennsylvania whose occupants (seven, and dwindling) are besieged by a ghoulish horde – at first only one lumbering cannibal, but more and more as night falls upon them, growing into a hungry swarm. Under this set-up, Romero tells of human altruism (and selfishness) under extreme pressures, and the horrors of facing an enemy with a human face who doesn’t think or feel.
The first 5-10 minutes of Night focus on two characters, Barbra and Johnny, a brother and sister who visit their father’s grave site out in the country once a year to lay down flowers. The reason, then, for the film’s first action is death, and its remembrance. This theme continues throughout the film – while Johnny speaks dismissively of his father’s memory, it’s the memory of Johnny that paralyzes Barbra through the remaining hour and a half. And inherent in the film’s governing conceit is the fact that the dead are not buried and forgotten; they’re up and about, ready to terrorize the still-living. This casts some irony on Johnny’s arrogance toward the dead, as well as toward his sister’s (vindicated) fear.
The opening scene, right up to the introduction of the film’s driving conflict (who appears as a tiny figure stumbling through the background), also goes from a mundane family outing full of sibling patter – albeit an outing to a cemetery, a location marked for horror – to a scene of sudden, blunt danger, where the normal world is intruded upon by violence and chaos.
It’s especially effective because all extraneous elements are discarded until we’re down to brother, sister, graveyard, ghoul. After some brief foreshadowing – Johnny’s oft-repeated line “They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”, delivered in a haunting voice worthy of Karloff – the ghoul attacks, Barbra flees, Johnny is killed, and it all happens quickly and unmomentously, an initial volley out of nowhere in a war that will expand over the course of the film.
In this way, Night of the Living Dead is a horror movie that’s also kind of a rural war movie – a Battle of the Alamo or Custer’s Last Stand against an unexplained, inhuman Other. Humanity, embodied in three men, three women, and a sick young girl, is pitted against a remorseless, single-minded foe it does not understand, and its back is quite literally against the wall. Herein lies much of the situation’s horror: we have the fact that the monsters are superficially human, yet fundamentally different; they are unwilling to reason and seek only to destroy.
Then there’s the gradually implied apocalyptic scale of the disaster which, although somewhat remedied in the end, still throws a pall over hopes for escape by suggesting maybe there is no escape when our own dead can turn on us. It’s a surprisingly bleak movie that throws open the flood gates of mortality and doesn’t really leave a ray of hope, regardless of whether or not the ghouls are eventually exterminated.
This all-consuming fear and hopelessness is especially stark in light of the fact that Night was originally plotted to be a “horror comedy,” in addition to the satirical elements in Romero’s subsequent work, and the spoofs the film has inspired (including a whole series from co-writer John Russo).
But there’s no mistaking the lack of humor, the characters’ increasing levels of panic and anxiety, and the somber aftertaste left by the finale. This is a horror film that embraces the fundamentals of a nightmare: an internal world where agonizing changes can come swiftly and irrevocably, upheaving the previous sociocultural and even physical landscape.
And so, like many great horror premises, Night‘s undead onslaught can be read on numerous levels. The film’s low budget and unrefined aesthetic have frequently led it to be compared to Vietnam War reportage, forming an analogy with the aggressive self-preservation and similarly brutal tactics (napalm, guerilla warfare?) present in the human/zombie conflict. And the beauty of the film is that this reading is pretty legitimate, but the viewer can also dip into several other moral and political cross-currents.
For example, while watching it tonight, I started pondering the zombie: driven but uncreative, ignorant of change, prioritizing its hunger over all logic or ethics, it demolishes whatever’s in its path and breaks down human constructions, but can be warded off through well-crafted barriers or especially crafty killing techniques, like Ben’s Molotov cocktails. The zombies do not appear to communicate, feel, or remember – they all simply share a common goal, namely to eat living humans. They’re an enemy without any real ideology, without any strategy, with nothing but an unstoppable desire to break into the house and kill those inside.
One question that repeatedly popped into my head was the relationship between zombies and fascism. They appear to be entropic creatures, with their bodies as well as any organizational structures around them perpetually falling apart. The zombie threat tears into any kinship between their human opponents, splintering what could have been a cooperative team into a group of (mostly) frightened individuals staring down the amorphous menace outside. But they move as one, with dozens of necrotic hands groping at Barbra through the window as if they belonged to one giant organism. In any case, perhaps this could be compared to my deep fear of swarming insects – locusts, flies, etc. – which are motivated more by biological pre-programming than by conscious solidarity.
Regardless of how you view the zombies – as a politicized enemy or cultural/biological foreigner – they not only act as the obvious threat, but also instigate the pressures and anxieties within the human group. A majority of screen time, after all, is devoted not to the zombies, but to the humans. And while the zombies act as one, they are split across several axes: racially, Ben (the most proactive of them) is visibly different, although this tension goes entirely unspoken; in terms of gender, Judy and Helen are largely nonfactors (outside of Helen’s role as a mother), while Barbra’s presence is significant mostly due to her inaction and emotional collapse. Harry, the elder of the white males, asserts himself as the patriarch of the cellar, and is incensed by Tom’s (ultimately fatal) decision to follow Ben outside.
Maybe the easiest moral to draw from this situation is the absurdity of division along petty differences when a much more relevant difference (human vs. zombie) is available; this is akin to the Earth vs. the Flying Saucers-type science fiction films of the ’50s, where national boundaries grow blurry when an extraterrestrial threat appears. But the film is far from moralistic, couching its story in the morally ambiguous iconography of Vietnam-era current events (not just war footage, but school and religious protests, assassinations earlier in 1968, etc.).
So this is the genius of Romero’s film: on the surface, it’s just a cheap monster movie, but dig around and it becomes a multivalent hotbed of political and social discourses. And I think the cheapness contributes to its appeal and influence. With just over $100,000, a few guys with some experience making commercials managed to put together a very scary movie with a compelling story. The zombies don’t have Jack Pierce makeup or anything, but they’re nonetheless genuinely frightening, and their ripped shirts and pustule-ridden faces photograph well in black and white.
Zombies (as a number of films have shown) innately lie on the edge between horror and comedy – the gaping faces and moaning probably contribute – but Romero places his securely in the domain of horror. He never studied under Roger Corman, and his lack of Hollywood roots do significantly differentiate his style from the Corman grads’ early films, but nonetheless there is a shared fondness for fear at minimal cost. In Romero, though, it’s married to a penchant for social observation which I think is lacking in Corman’s grandstanding, happily schlocky films (just compare the acting style of Vincent Price to Duane Jones to John Amplas).
In case my discussion has left any doubt, Night of the Living Dead is never really overtly political. It sticks to its title’s drive-in horror roots. But it’s never dumb, nor does it allow its conflict to overwhelm its characters or ideas. I see it as a great Halloween movie, potent at inspiring fear both from its monsters and from its ambiguities. So lie back, watch it, get sucked into the nervous tension, and remember: they’re coming to get you… Barbra. With its gritty, quasi-realistic style, its frightening end-of-days scenario, and its bottomless pool of ideas about humanity and violence, Night of the Living Dead is one of my favorite movies.